Multi-Billion Dollar NIH Brain Initiative A Stroke of Genius or Madness?

A Tale of Two Cities

Is the new multi-billion dollar NIH Brain Initiative a stroke of madness or genius?

For some non-brain researchers scrambling for funding from NIH, it could well just give them a stroke.

At the same time as the NIH and Obama are asking for $4.5 billion (yes, with a b) for the new “big science” Brain Initiative, most biomedical scientists are feeling like it is almost impossible to get a new core NIH R01 grant.

What’s an R01?

It is the type of grant that usually has about $1 million in direct funding (costing NIH perhaps $1.5-2.0 million total with indirect costs) and that supports the core work of most biomedical science labs.

To me on first glance this situation seems crazy, but is there some wonderful genius notion at work here? Hmm…

The current NIH budget situation reminds me more of a literary genius, Charles Dickens. His novel, A Tale of Two Cities (picture above from Wikipedia), begins:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Many in the biomedical sciences feel like they are “going direct the other way” to funding hell lately and for the foreseeable future, but for others perhaps the future will be a brain slice of heaven.

The bottom line can be summed up in a question:

The NIH cannot fund core R01 grants at around $1 million a piece beyond the excruciatingly low 10-15% level, but it is asking for thousands of R01s-worth of money for a single initiative?

What the heck?

I have to invoke another Dickens novel here, Oliver Twist, to illustrate just how horrible the funding climate is today. Many young scientists feel like the character Oliver asking, to paraphrase:

“Please, sir…I want some more…funding”.

At the same time as an entire generation of young biomedical scientists faces unprecedented hardship (and many super talented scientists are leaving the biomedical science research arena entirely) due in large part to an NIH budget that has been declining in real dollars for years leading to historically low funding levels of NIH R01 grants, the NIH can afford to ask for $4.5 billion in new money for this one initiative?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the brain. My lab studies the brain, both how it grows and works normally and what goes wrong with brain tumors. However, the NIH desperately needs new funding for R01s, not for this big science project no matter how cool it sounds and even if the POTUS is behind it.

NIH and Obama should be working for more funding for R01s and other grant mechanisms, not this big brain billion dollar bonanza project.

5 thoughts on “Multi-Billion Dollar NIH Brain Initiative A Stroke of Genius or Madness?

  1. Understanding how the brain works is arguably the most important quest of the 21st century. Not just in a philosophical sense, but thinking about the cognitive technologies that could be derived from the research. The A.I. in turn will help accelerate discoveri in every other field of science where human ingenuity and resources end. Obama and Markram are thinking BIG, and I applaud them for it.

    • “Understanding how the brain works is arguably the most important quest of the 21st century”
      Others might say the same about curing cancer, fighting climate change, averting an antibiotic resistance catastrophe etc. The brain is not the last big problem left over, and if this was just about saving lives there are better ways to spend the money.
      Big science is unfortunately often quite inefficient and sometimes wasteful (e.g. encode).

  2. those outside of our area can cry about it, dr knoepfler.

    some people werent’ picking their bottoms while enjoying the privilege of tax free graduate student stipends, and actually used those two years to produce something that made the neuroscience editor of Nature quite jealous (holla neuroplastishitty!)


  3. The world has passed the limits of growth. Now, at best, we live in a zero sum world. If one is to do better then the other will do worse. Get used to it.

    As for hugely increased spending upon brain research, one has to wonder why? Generally, it makes sense to ramp up the funding when some basic technology or theoretical breakthrough demonstrates a profitable path forward. To illustrate, it would have been pointless to have thrown millions of pounds to develop a wireless technology at a time before James Clerk Maxwell had achieved his great synthesis — the theory of electromagnetic waves. Similarly, mapping the genome could not happen before X-ray crystallography enabled the discovery of the structure of DNA.

    Has there been such a development regarding brain function? Not so far as I can determine. On the contrary, the basic principle of pushed by brain science for many years is that brain disorders are just a chemical imbalance to be restored by drugs. This model suits the interests of Big Pharma — but it has been an abject failure in every other regard. Huge amounts of money spent and ever more messed up people!

    I think that “brain science” is still in the exploratory phase — so it should be funded as such.

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